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Straight Up Conversation: New National Charter Alliance Chief Nina Rees

Nina Rees has just been named the new president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the national organization of the country's charter schools. As of August 20, she'll take the reins from interim president Ursula Wright, who has impressively filled the job for nearly a year. Nina served in the Bush administration as the first Assistant Secretary for Innovation and Improvement (the job currently held by Jim Shelton), and has worked for the last several years as a senior vice president at Knowledge Universe. Given Nina's new role, and the current tumult around charter schooling, I thought it timely to sit down and chat with her about the gig.

Rick Hess: What was appealing about the job?
Nina Rees: My background has been in the area of parental choice. This is the space that I know the most about and the area that I've studied and worked on over my career, starting from a public interest law firm experience at the Institute for Justice, [then] the Heritage Foundation, the White House, and the U.S. Department of Education running the Office of Innovation and Improvement. And, even in my current job at Knowledge Universe, where we're advocating for choice in the context of early childhood education. So I thought this experience would be a nice summary of what I've done over the past twenty years, and that I'd be able to use a lot of the skills I've acquired, both on the policy and practice fronts. My heart is really the charter and innovation space.

RH: So tell me a bit about the job. What will you focus on initially?
NR: We have three key goals. First and foremost, we're going to focus at the federal level, making sure that, to the extent possible, we have a presence at the table in discussions around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I'm also hoping to look at some of the other reauthorizations and other statutes that may benefit the charter school movement...our focus is going to be on legislative and regulatory issues at the federal level.

[The second piece] is communications; making sure that everyone out there knows what a charter school is and being a voice for the sector at the federal level...If we're not defining who we are and what we're about, our opposition will--and they already have, to a great extent. So it's important for us to have a strong offensive line when it comes to talking about charter schools and defining exactly what a high quality charter school looks like [and] what we want the sector to look like over the next twenty years.

And last but not least is the state piece: expanding charter schools, enacting charter school laws in those states that don't have a law, and strengthening those laws that are weak. At the same time, there are some strong laws out there that, for whatever reason, are not generating high quality charter schools, so we should look for opportunities to weigh in accordingly.

RH: When you refer to the need to make sure people understand what charters are, what do you have in mind? At this point, how big an issue is confusion about what charter schooling means?
NR: I think within our circles, certainly people have a sense as to what a charter school is, but I don't think the general public has a clear sense. I'll just give you an example: I was talking to my father last weekend, and he didn't know exactly how it worked. He thought it was kind of a half-private, half-public type of school.

So I think we have a lot of work to do. Our opposition is never going to believe that charter schooling is an effective reform, but I think there are a lot of people in the middle who either don't know what a charter school is or are misguided about what it is and how it functions. I think we need to do a better job of explaining ourselves, so that it's seen as a viable reform. Also, in terms of attracting families to attend charter schools, they need a good understanding of what it is and how it works. It's easier in D.C. because you have a viable movement. Over 30 percent of the students in D.C. attend charter schools, so a lot of people know what it is and how it works, but I don't know that that's the case in a lot of other communities.

RH: You referenced opponents of charter schooling. At this point, when you think about the opposition, are there organizations or individuals that come to mind? Who are you thinking of?
NR: At the national level, the teachers' unions have not been advocates of charter schools. To the extent they're talking about charter schools, they're not wedded to the full mission of what a charter school is--which is to give complete autonomy to a principal to hire the best teachers and fire those who are not performing well. But I also think, as you go around the country, to some extent school districts don't like the notion of funds leaving the traditional school system into a different sector. I'm hopeful that we'll be able...to make a stronger case for why charter schools are not only a good option for the families in the system, but also for traditional public schools who may be able to learn from some of the innovative things that charter schools are doing.

RH: Ideally, what role do you see the Alliance playing on the charter landscape?
NR: At the federal level, I think we need to work very closely with the state associations, the CMOs, the EMOs, [and] the single site operators...We need to do a better job at the federal level advocating and securing funding for charter schools. The other piece of it is to convey the stories that are happening every day in charter schools at the local level. So that we're adding value both by sharing the stories in the court of public opinion, but also from an advocacy standpoint...and I don't know how much of that is happening right now.

RH: As you talked with the board of the Alliance, are there one or two areas in particular where you think the Alliance can be doing a lot better than it's been in recent years?
NR: [The Board's] charge really has been to give the Alliance a more prominent place in terms of advocacy at the federal level, to have a seat at the table when people are talking about legislation and regulations that impact charter schools, and to also be present when the media is talking about the topic... If the past twenty years have been about growth, the next twenty need to be about taking some of the lessons of the past twenty, so that we continue growing but that we're not making the same mistakes we have in the past. The focus really ought to be on quality, on giving more funding to those operators that are interested in replicating their schools and also attracting the types of operators who have the best chance at succeeding in this space.

RH: How would you describe the state of charter schooling today? On the whole, how would you say the sector is doing?
NR: The movement is 5,600 charter schools strong. We serve over two million students, and a lot of this growth has actually happened over the past five years, so it's a very strong movement. It's still a small one, but I think in those cities, like Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, where you have a concentration of charter schools, you're definitely noticing its impact, both on the students served and on the larger school system.

The studies on charter schools certainly offer a mixed message. Looking at randomized field trials, when you compare the students who are in charter schools to those who are interested in getting into those schools but are unable to because of capacity constraints, the students in charters do much better in reading and math and also in terms of graduating from the schools they attend. But the best study is the one done by Macke Raymond at CREDO. The promising piece of that study is the fact that some charters are knocking it out of the ballpark, and their achievement is far above and beyond anything that the traditional public school system has done.

The other thing that I'm going to focus on...is to make better and greater connections between providers of technology solutions and charter schools. There has been some movement on this front, with Rocketship and other schools that use a blended learning model or are fully online, but I think the charter space should really take advantage of some of the innovations in the technology field. I'm hoping to help broker some of these discussions more so than they've happened in the past.

The space needs to continue being open to new and innovative ideas and...to risk-taking. But I think we need to be very careful with accountability and using data effectively to track how well these providers are doing, so that they can be shut down if they're not performing well.

RH: How do you think about the relationship with Greg Richmond and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers?
NR: We currently don't have a formal relationship, and part of what I'm going to do over the next ninety days is to see if we can come up with informal ways of working more closely with groups like NACSA, especially since the discussion around quality is so focused on what authorizers are doing and how quickly they're shutting down poorly performing schools...Of course, it's very difficult to shut down a school that has a following, but I don't think our sector has done a very good job of explaining to families what a good, high quality school looks like and why it's so important to not tolerate poor performance. At the same time, to the extent we're talking about shutting down poor performing schools, I think one of the dilemmas families face is, "Where am I going to send my child?" So if there are no other options within that neighborhood, that problem becomes even more complicated.

RH: You had a pretty terrific job at Knowledge Universe. Did anything give you pause about taking the Alliance job?
NR: Not really. My background has been in the area of parental choice and primarily at the K-12 level. I enjoyed the work at Knowledge Universe and the focus on early childhood education, but that's not my passion and area of expertise. I'd also add that a lot of the discussions taking place on the early childhood front are perhaps maybe 10 years behind where the discussions around K-12 are when it comes to accountability and content. So in that sense I'm excited to be in a space that has embraced data, accountability, and parental choice at the same time. And I also felt that, based on what I've learned working at a for-profit, I would be able to add value in the public or charter space.

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